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I'm writing a story about a people that lives in a very cold, icy environment. Their technological level of advancement ranges from stone age to dark ages in different areas.

I'd like them to record their knowledge in books, but I'm facing a problem. They live on fish, mollusks and cephalopods. No plants from which to make paper, and no land animals from which to make even leather pages. Also not much contact with peoples from other climates to get paper from trade.

That said, I have played quite a few videogames where you gather raw materials to craft your own tools. Recently I got a rather morbid one in which you can harvest skin from human corpses and use that skin to make fine, clear white, book quality sheets of paper. You can also use skin from other animals to make hard or soft covers for books.

What I would like to know is whether crafting good old notebook grade paper from human skin is possible; and if it is, by which process that could be achieved.


P.s.: I don't want this to involve cruelty - rather, I am giving it a respectful, poetic spin. Something along the lines of "our history does not end with death. She taught us with her voice when she lived. Now she tells the story of our people through her remains".


P.p.s.: I think this may be obvious, but I'll have it written here anyway. Skin color does not correlate with paper color. They will make the paper white as snow through dyes.

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    $\begingroup$ You cannot make paper from human skin, but you can make decent quality parchment. Parchment is a writing material just like paper, and can be used in the same way -- writing with ink or printing. The difference is that parchment is very much more expensive and very much more durable. We have parchment documents which are thousands of years old and are still perfectly legible. Even today, very important documents which are intended to last for a very long time are sometimes written or printed on parchment. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 3 '18 at 17:24
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP that comment could be an answer ;) $\endgroup$ – Renan Sep 3 '18 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ No, it couldn't. It would be an answer to the question "writing material made of human skin". The question asks for paper. AFAIK, human skin does not contain the kind of fibers which can be matted to make paper. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 3 '18 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP The question was tagged reality-check so I think your comment would also be a valid answer. That is, reality-check allows for "no you can't" type answers. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Sep 3 '18 at 17:46
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    $\begingroup$ As a (somewhat interesting) tangent the UK Government 'still' (as of 2016) used vellum to preserve its written laws: bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35569281 $\endgroup$ – David Thomas Sep 3 '18 at 20:27

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It's called Vellum

Quoted from the National Archives

Differences between Parchment, Vellum and Paper The term parchment is a general term for an animal skin which has been prepared for writing or printing. Parchment has been made for centuries, and is usually calf, goat, or sheep skin. The term vellum from the French veau refers to a parchment made from calf skin. The manufacture of parchment is quite involved. After the skin is removed from the animal and any hair or flesh is cleaned away, it is stretched on a wooden frame. While it is stretched, the parchment maker or parchminer scrapes the surface of the skin with a special curved knife. In order to create tension in the skin, scraping is alternated by wetting and drying the skin. The parchment is scraped, wetted, and dried several times to bring it to the right thickness and tautness. Sometimes a final finish is achieved using pumice as an abrasive followed by chalk in order to prepare the surface of the skin to accept ink. Parchment has traditionally been used instead of paper for important documents such as religious texts, public laws, indentures, and land records as it has always been considered a strong and stable material. The five pages of the U.S. Constitution as well as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Articles of Confederation are written on parchment. The terms parchment and vellum are also used in the paper making industry. Parchment paper is made from cellulose fibers prepared from fir trees or plants such as cotton or flax. Paper can be made which mimics the thickness and smooth surface of parchment. The terms refer to the finish of the paper and should not be relied upon as an indicator of its long term stability.

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You can't have paper, you don't have the cellulose fibres but you can make human parchment. Parchment has been made from a variety of different animal skins over the centuries. The skins are dried, cured, and scraped smooth to make a consistent writing surface, it can then be cut to make even sheets, or not if you want that rough and ready look.

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    $\begingroup$ The really paper like parchment, called vellum is made from the skin of, ... young children... $\endgroup$ – Volker Siegel Sep 4 '18 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ @VolkerSiegel I'd expect that Vellum would be too costly of labour to use under the circumstances. $\endgroup$ – Ash Sep 4 '18 at 12:59
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Since you seem to be looking for methods of writing in general and because ink might freeze in the environment you're describing I'd like to suggest an alternative to using skin as paper.
Many writing systems started out as engravings. Think about Egyptian or Mayan glyphs, but also Germanic runes, Sumerian cuneiform and Chinese oracle bone script.

A photo of oracle bones script

In your world it could be common for inscriptions to be made on conveniently shaped mollusc shells. The word for page and shell might even be the same. Books might look something like this:

Shellodex
A variety of seashells

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    $\begingroup$ I think this is a really good idea. Shells would probably last longer in that environment. You wouldn't have to worry about people ripping things or getting lost in the wind. Wear from ice/water would be minimal too. You wouldn't have to worry about the writing bleeding from any ink. And this way, even if someone was blind, they could feel the inscriptions and read it like braille. $\endgroup$ – Sensoray Sep 4 '18 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ Also they stack pretty neatly. You might even be able to bind them into something that resembles a book or rolodex. $\endgroup$ – 魔大农 Sep 6 '18 at 10:56
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You could possibly even make parchment from the skins of big fish or marine mammals such as whales and seals.

Here's a video of the parchment making process (you'll see the skins of dead animals, obviously) and here is a short video of how to tan fish skin to make fish leather (you'll see a dead fish, obviously), so why shouldn't they make fish parchment?

Due to the scaly outer surface, you would only be able to write on one side of the skin. So you could use fish parchment for teaching purposes (nobody is born as a master scribe!) and everyday use and seal or human parchment for religious skriptures.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 just for mentioning you can make parchment form fish skin. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 13 at 15:17
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Human skin is a renewable resource!

split thickness skin graft. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/876290-overview Split thickness skin graft, ready to go.

healed donor site http://www.eatonhand.com/img/img00143.htm Healed skin graft harvest site.

If someone has surgery and the resulting wound (or burn) is too big to pull together, you can cover it with a split thickness skin graft. That takes the top layer of skin from a healthy place on the body (thigh depicted) and uses it as a live bandage for the surgical site. There are machines to harvest split thickness skin grafts or you can do it by hand; see link. Atop the wound bed, the skin graft moves in to its new home. The lower half of the skin regenerates the top half. Everyone is happy!

In your world where the scribes and monks must use skin as parchment, they can harvest it from themselves and then heal. Large bodies are welcome for this endeavor, and the multiple healed overlapping scars on the bodies of these monks are signs of their piety and dedication. Your scribes might tattoo the works directly onto their bodies in life, then harvest the tattooed skin. When old age or death approaches, the magnum opus of these scholars can be a work tattooed over the entirety of their bodies, then harvested after death and revered as a saintlike relic.

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    $\begingroup$ Skin farms (for non-medical purposes) is a pretty creepy thought! $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Sep 3 '18 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't do this in a world where human advancement is at stone age - dark ages level. Too high risk of infection. $\endgroup$ – ndnenkov Sep 4 '18 at 7:39
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Before I begin, may I just say that in answering this, I worried my friends quite terribly. May I also say that the research into this involved opening 26 tabs on top of my others, which meant I had about 50 tabs open by the end of it which frankly should be a crime.

I don't think that you're going to be able to have notebook grade paper, but you might be able to have something similar.

Your best bet would to use skin from stillborn or miscarried babies, or perhaps premature infants if the culture allows their killing. At 30 weeks, an infant's skin has all the layers that an adult would, while it still retains some thinness and transparency.

If that is not available, then we use adult skin. This will be what be focus on: the skin of an average 30 year old person. Our victim is perfectly healthy in every way with no injuries. They probably died of a sudden heart attack. It happens.

Now, before harvesting the skin we’re going to want to make sure that it’s clean, which can be done by dunking the body in water and scrubbing off any sorts of blemishes. Once this is done, we can begin to remove it.

I recommend using a knife-like dermatome, which is nowadays used for skin grafts. Your best bet in this would probably be a blair knife similar to this, which, depending on the environment around them, could be fashioned from things such as flint and obsidian.

Collect the skin from the feet and hands if possible, as this is where it’s thickest. Make an incision through the skin to the bottom of the dermis. Make an incision of the same depth and cut along the skin to connect them so that you have a rectangle of flesh.

To prepare the flesh, give it another wash and let it dry on racks. Now stretch it out and place a block of solid material behind it. Take a cloth or dull rock to remove any hair. Then use a dull knife to smooth out the skin, but be aware that perfection is near impossible to achieve, especially since what we’re using is rather thin. The process of making sure it can hold ink/carving will vary depending on the specifics of what they’re using to write.

Then you just have to bind it. I don’t really know anything about this subject but I will point you to these links about it.

Hope this helps you, and please tell me if I need to clarify anything. Not quite full list of links that I used in this because if I have been taught one thing, it's to have a bibliography:

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent answer, +1 $\endgroup$ – Renan Sep 28 '18 at 23:41
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    $\begingroup$ I have edited your answer but please, next time provide a title or summary for your links, it's nice to know what you are clicking. $\endgroup$ – Miguel Bartelsman Sep 30 '18 at 11:09
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We use paper because it's convenient. We have lots of plants that give us fibers, the fibers can be pressed together in ways that get them to stick in sheets. If it wasn't convenient we wouldn't do it.

Parchment is skin that doesn't need that treatment but does need cleaning, scraping, etc. It works, and it's expensive. If an adult human gives you 20 sheets per skin surface (which I think is generous) that's 20 sheets per lifetime.

There might be other possibilities. Hair is fibrous, made of keratin. Felt involves pressing hair kind of like paper, but it's thicker and more porous. There might be ways to carefully heat keratin in alkali to disrupt the hydrogen (and disulfide) bonds and then let it solidify into tough sheets.

Blood contains a clotting agent, fibroin. It might be possible to make sheets of something like paper, something like scabs, starting with blood.

We haven't done much with this sort of thing because we have so much cheap cellulose paper. But it might likely be possible.

I expect there might be much more hair available than skin, particularly from humans who grow hair continuously their whole lives, but provide only one skin at death.

If you can get keratin paper from hair, you might also find a way to get it from fish scales. You might get a rough cheap paper if you can merely find a way to glue somewhat-processed fish scales together.

Paper from keratin hasn't been much of a research focus because we already have cheap paper. A lot of experimentation might give good results.

general review

solubilizing keratin

paper from mixed keratin and cotton lint

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Human leather has been made, it was used to documents the crimes of murders, bound in their own skin. The BBC has a news article on a book that was bound in human leather. Wikipedia (as always) has an article.

I can't find any references for human vellum, but I won't be surprised if it was made.

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with these environment, adaptive evolution would take place very rapidly......

the arctic people, even if indigenous to the planet, would quickly develop a disorder in their genes that would prevent the flaking of their skins, creating a resistant coating of dead skin cells on top of them, and it would also eliminate the ability to sweat: sweating from a sleep would be very dangerous for anyone who lives in the arctic, causing hypothermia and quick death, making this disorder evolutionally favorable.

the dead skin would accumulate and harden, finally shedding in a configuration that results in a flat sheet if unfolded, probably by adaptation, or they could harvest the accumulated thick dead skin from themselves: thicker layers makes leather, thinner layer makes good parchment/velium, and the thickiest layers have a quality comparabe to sheet metal. all these uses again make this mutation evolutionarilly favorable. as there is no technical limit for generating flat sheets by biological self assembly, the people of the setting would quickly evolve the equivalent of wax glands of honeybees: sebum could become wax or cement, and dead skin could become paper, with all the possible origami construction that are useful/constructible by cutting and folding.

As this disorder dramatically strengthens tha arctic adaptability of the individuals having the disorder, this adaptation would happen within a few generations.

the society would be interesting: as the most important construction materials were secreted, and it is not very plentiful, the people have to compress their written languages extremely efficiently, as there is a maximum rate of skin shedding, and older skins have utility uses, medium for writing and recording would be extremely scarce, and would be limited in rate for each individual. the result would be that information compression and micrography developing earlier, as this reduces the information storage medium requirement for a given culture. construction will be time consuming, and slavery would inevitably form, from higher classed individuals using lower classed individuals as a form of forced material producer.

Other consequences includes: empires measured solely by the number of individuals within it; further adaptations for faster, controlled production and shedding of skin and wax; furthet adaptation for stronger shed skin; and most and most disturbing: segregation of classes by genetic specialization, and the evolution of eusocial behavior.

long terms short: put humans on an arctic planet without available materials for primitive construction, and they will become ants or bees.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not the answer I was expecting, but bounty-worthy. $\endgroup$ – Renan Sep 28 '18 at 11:22
  • $\begingroup$ Wait my skin does this, is this a hypothetical or real condition? (o_0) I always just thought it was eczema (of course that's kind of a hand-wavy diagnosis anyway). $\endgroup$ – Black Sep 30 '18 at 22:01
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There is a process of doing pants out of human skin mentioned here https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nábrók

The pants, from my understanding, were made out of dead remains so no crime was committed. The same source may also apply to your parchment.

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